East outdoors 

Awesome rock, places to roll, and ways to get higher than you thought possible

With beautiful Pikes Peak out west, and all its hiking and biking trails, waterfalls and rocks to climb, it's easy to assume that the east is nothing but a flat expanse of plains smattered with suburban housing. But remember what they say about those who assume.

In this area, there are hidden oases for nature-lovers and even activities to titillate thrill-seekers. Let's start with the hidden oases, also known as parks.

The first one that comes to mind is Palmer Park (3650 Maizeland Road), a serene swath of nature smack in the middle of commerce and modernity. Sprawled over more than 730 acres, the trails are winding and challenging, especially for those on two wheels. They can be confusing, too, so if you'd rather save your legs from possible backtracking, you can navigate on horseback.

Kids and science-loving types may pay close attention to the rock formations and fossils — to include shark teeth — in the sedimentary rock layers. Traditional athletes can enjoy baseball, soccer and football fields, and volleyball courts. And canines get a fenced dog park, with a water fountain that operates during the summer months.

A little farther east but still in the Springs (meaning that there's info at springsgov.com/parks), a few neighborhood parks liven up the suburban landscape. Laura Gilpin Park (7415 Kettle Drum St.) features a large grassy area for picnics, football or fetch with Fido. The basketball court doubles as an inline skating rink, and skaters will also dig the half-pipe and tabletop.

Pring Ranch Park (5264 Prairie Grass Lane) also offers a basketball court that welcomes inline skating, plus multi-use fields and a tee-ball field for the little sluggers. Sandstone Park (4650 Pring Ranch Road) flaunts tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, as well as a baseball field and a grassy area that can be used for the shenanigans listed above. The perimeter path is also perfect for walking and jogging.

Going beyond city limits (and into the online realm of adm.elpasoco.com/parks), you find Paint Mines Interpretive Park (29950 Paint Mine Road, Calhan). The drive isn't exciting, but the destination is: The exposed sedimentary layers tell the stories of millions of years of the area's history. Stand back to view the full palette of colors — yellows, whites, pinks and purples — that paint the twisted chasms and oddly shaped rock formations. Or spend the day wandering through crevices and examining the layers.

Equally secluded but with more activities is Homestead Ranch Regional Park (16444 Gollihar Road, Peyton). It was a homestead site first settled in 1874, and the original owners were certainly never bored. With bluffs for hiking, you might run into some natural wildlife or even have some opportunities for bird-watching. Fishing poles are recommended at the spring-fed pond, and it'd be possible to grill up your catches at the picnic pavilion. Rugrats can mess around on the playground, or bring a ball to toss in the grass.

By the way, if "ball" + "grass" = golf in your world, there are a number of options: city-owned Valley Hi Golf Course (610 S. Chelton Road, valleyhigolfcourse.com), as well as Antler Creek (9650 Antler Creek Drive, Peyton, antlercreekgolf.com) and Cherokee Ridge (1820 Tuskegee Place, cherokeeridgegolfcourse.com).

But back to less manicured attractions. The Rock Island Trail runs east-west from Powers Boulevard, just south of Constitution Avenue (there's also parking there) to North Nevada Avenue, where it meets up with Shooks Run. It's mostly concrete and asphalt, and the complete trip covers about 12 miles. For a north-south venture, the Homestead Trail demands more than 16 miles round-trip, with asphalt, concrete and gravel. And if you get bored with either trail, they meet up around Academy Boulevard, so you can always veer off in a different direction.

Now, for those of you with a penchant for danger, thrills were mentioned earlier. At the Dragonman compound (1200 Dragon Man Drive, dragonmans.com), you can engage in guerilla warfare — well, that's what it'll feel like, anyway. In reality, it's scenario-style paintball. If you prefer brass to paint, you can bring your own guns and shoot targets (rather than your friends). The compound also has a 25-acre dirt bike park for dirt bikes, quads and four-wheelers. With 50-plus jumps, it's hard to keep calm.

Speaking of jumps ... never mind. Feet should stay firmly planted in a hot air balloon basket. Pretty low on the adrenaline scale, but still butterfly-inducing, hot air balloon tours are a great way to see the Springs and experience the outdoors from a different vantage point. High But Dry Balloons (4164 Austin Bluffs Pkwy., highbutdryballoons.com) offers one-hour balloon rides around the Colorado Springs area and Palmer Park.

Or, enjoy the area at a faster pace on a helicopter tour. Colorado Vertical Adventures (1587 Aviation Way, coloradovertical.com) will zip you around Garden of the Gods, America the Beautiful Park, the Cripple Creek historic gold mines or Pikes Peak for 30 minutes to an hour. Just be prepared to pay $160 to $300, and make reservations in advance.


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